In a perfect world we would not need jails, but we do not live in a perfect world. Contrary to what some would have you believe, simply closing jails, especially when jail space is desperately needed, does not make our communities safer. Further, it does not enable us to provide critically needed services for those battling addiction and mental health problems. If we are to be successful in reducing recidivism, break the cycle of crime, and provide the services many detainees need to be healthy and productive members of our community, we need to honestly address the problem.
The Fulton County jail has an official capacity of 2,591. The facility, however, currently houses 2,607 detainees - and that’s after nearly 500 nonviolent detainees were released in April 2020 due to COVID and overcrowding. Additionally, blanket signature bonds also have been instituted, allowing certain nonviolent offenders to be automatically released during COVID.
Currently, Fulton County jail detainees are housed on emergency lockdown status due to a critical shortage of bed space. I was the leader of the city of Atlanta jail for 10 years, and while some would like to dismiss the need for the jail, the truth is it serves a useful purpose and meets an important need for our community. With capacity for 1,300 detainees, it offers a valuable and immediate solution to the Fulton County jail overcrowding dilemma.
Approximately 41% of detainees in the Fulton County jail were arrested by the Atlanta Police Department within the city of Atlanta. As APD works to fill its vacancies and courts work through the case backlog after being closed due to COVID, any reasonable assessment would anticipate the overcrowding will be exacerbated in coming months. To ignore that reality is not a winning strategy.
The idea that the city can simply remove incarceration as a penalty for certain city code offenses to eliminate the need for municipal jail space is a risky strategy that compromises public safety. During COVID, our community has already seen the detrimental impact of those who have taken advantage of this situation and view Atlanta as a “free-zone” for committing offenses.
Also, signature bonds have been a contributing factor, with arrestees signing themselves out and getting quickly back on the streets - sometimes to be arrested multiple times on the same day. In addition to being demoralizing for law enforcement, it is not hard to see how criminal elements are emboldened knowing they face no threat of arrest or incarceration for quality-of-life offenses like disorderly conduct against people or property. In most instances, these are not victimless crimes.
I wholeheartedly support additional wraparound wellness services and workforce opportunities being made available, especially in the most-vulnerable and marginalized communities. However, if a constructive dialogue reveals that another building is needed in order to offer and expand critical community resources, it seems other existing properties owned by the city of Atlanta would prove to be more suitable than demolishing or repurposing a building constructed to be a jail (symbolism aside).
Murders in Atlanta are up 59% year-over-year. We are also seeing disturbing increases in other crimes. A decision to permanently close the city jail would have broad and lasting implications not only in terms of the cost citizens will bear through taxes, but also for the safety of residents.
As your Sheriff, I stand ready to engage in meaningful dialogue about the future of the city jail and the full range of options available; those options include, but are not limited to, leasing all or a portion of the city jail, or purchasing the jail by Fulton County until a new county facility is built.
The time is now for this important discussion. Public safety requires that we engage in this discussion before any decision is made. Our citizens deserve no less.
Patrick Labat is sheriff of Fulton County.